“Economic Power is always tied to Political Power. And what is happening is that we want political power, but we put ourselves into economically powerless situations and wonder why we aren’t more empowered.”
In the last year, I’ve read and enjoyed the discussions coming out of Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, as well as the great article Six Myths about Climate Change that Liberals Rarely Question. The core point within both of these is that our lifestyle needs to fundamentally change if we have any chance of addressing the climate crisis.
Yet missing from this conversation are ideas that are both practical and radical. Ideas which could serve as a blueprint for what a fundamentally different lifestyle would look like. Just as changing lightbulbs won’t be enough, we also know that occupying Wall Street is not a practical choice for most Americans. So what we need are ideas which are radical enough to cause widespread change, yet practical enough, that folks living in the suburbs could put them into practice.
I think ideas like this are what most environmentalists have been searching for. Disappointed that I couldn’t find any answers myself, I started a number of projects in 2010 to experiment with practical and radical ways that I could at least transition my own lifestyle. Since then, this project has become an award winning school called Transition Lab, and I am now sure that we have come up with some of the steps needed to creating the change we need.
The following is a blueprint for how all of you can get to work right now. I also know these steps that are both practical and radical because everything that I describe here has already been accomplished in a small, rural, and ridiculously conservative town in Western Colorado. That is to say, if we did this here, you can do this anywhere.
So let’s start by identifying where we are:
If we agree that an economy based on unlimited resource extraction is destroying the planet, and that our consumeristic lifestyle is the thing that keeps this economy in motion, then debt is the biggest and most powerful force that guarantees our continued participation. Why? Well if you are like my wife and I, we owe around $200,000 between our home mortgage and some student loans. Most Americans are in similar situations. Since all of that debt is in dollars, most of us will choose to participate in the global economy to try to pay it off. If we don’t, our system is set up to take all that we have earned and own away from us. It’s that powerful. Barring the unlikely scenario of major debt strikes or loan forgiveness programs, the status quo is not going to let us off the hook. So, at least until the debt (that we voluntarily have taken on) is gone, we need to keep participating in the global economy whether we like it or not.
In the same way that debt essentially forces us to participate in this economy, it also prevents us from being the truly creative individuals who will develop more elegant ways of living. Why? Well, the more debt we have, the more we concentrate on earning money to pay off that debt, and the less freedom we have to plant gardens, meditate, take care of our relatives, spend time with our neighbors, or work to pass a carbon tax. In other words, debt leads to creative paralysis.
So, in order for us to create radical change, we have to reconsider what our relationship with debt is going to be. Then we can figure out how to practically make a living in ways that could empower our creativity.
I’m going to divide up the suggested action plan using one simple determinate: How much debt do you have? We’ll start with folks who owe MORE than $50,000 in debt. For those of you who owe less than this, I’ll have some suggestions for you in a moment. But for now, let’s focus on the majority of American’s who own more than this. Ready? Here we go:
Practical and radical step #1: Those who are in debt, that own homes, could “exchange rent” in their guest bedrooms for work on resilience building projects.
Here is a case study: My wife and I wanted to be more resilient by growing food in our yard instead of grass. We didn’t have the time to do this though because we were busy paying off our debt. Our friend Evan was in a similar situation: He was trying to make a living as an organic chef and gardener, but couldn’t find enough work to meet his basic needs.
The three of us came up with a simple plan: We would exchange rent in our home with Evan, if he would garden and cook for us for 15 hours a week. 7 months later, Evan had converted 3000 square feet of lawn into garden and got to cook meals the way he loved. We got an incredible garden and a personal organic chef without having to pay cash for it. Meanwhile Evan worked a regular job, and saved over $4000 in rent to pay off his own credit card debt. It wasn’t just a win-win. It was a win-win-win-win.
This kind of relationship is a really big deal because it simultaneously empowered creativity, while reducing our dependence on the global economy to meet various basic needs. It also worked on a scale big enough that it made a substantial difference in where our food came from.
So here’s why step #1 has to be the starting point for building a fundamentally different lifestyle:
None of us have the resources necessary to pay cash for the improvements our world needs to avert the worst consequences of climate change. Governments are no more likely to spend money on building a green economy than we are to spend $10,000 to have a contractor plant our massive garden for us. There simply isn’t enough cash around. But my point is that the real work we need be to doing to doesn’t require that many dollars. We happened to use this model to relocalize our personal food system and it worked. Then we realized “Skilled Residents” like Evan could take on all kinds of wonderful projects and put enough consistent time and energy into them that they would yield some big results. In the last few years, through Transition Lab, we have arranged for young people to live with homeowners in exchange for launching grassroots political campaigns, running timebanks, and providing affordable eldercare. Most importantly, when we engage in projects like this, we rebuild the relationships that we have lost with one another over the last 50 years. We are beginning to rely on one another, instead of cash, to get things done.
Another piece of good news is that due to our excessive lifestyle of the last 50 years, we have the perfect infrastructure already in place to get all the work done that we need to do. In every community, with every demographic of people in this country, there are large homes with large yards and vacant guest bedrooms that could house all of the young social visionaries on the planet. This is an infinitely renewable resource that could allow massive amounts of people to get to work right now without changing anything else. Even more importantly, these kinds of relationships allow young people to meet their basic needs (food, utilities, and housing) without ever having to go into debt or participate significantly in the global economy in the first place. It’s practical, radical, and possible!
This gets me to the second group of people who owe less than $50,000 in debt. These people tend to be young and either about to go to college, or maybe halfway through. For these people, I offer:
Practical and radical step #2: Become a Skilled Resident.
There are a lot of reasons to go to college, as well as a lot of reasons not to, and I’m not going to get debate that here. What I do want to point out is that we all know folks in college who are paying lots of money for room and board, when they could be living as skilled residents and saving money instead. We also all know college grads who are living with their folks, unable to get a job with the degree that they earned, and working crappy jobs just to try to meet the minimum payment on their student loans. In fact, according to the Department of Education there are more college grads who live with their parents than live with roommates now. If there was ever a sign that the economy is going down the tank, this is it. But again, I see this as an opportunity. We don’t need more people working in the global economy. We need to just re-direct the energy and skills of those unemployed and underemployed to our local communities.
So if you are one of these people, and want to save money, do what you are actually passionate about, and get ahead in your life, here is how to change things: First, commit a couple hours a week to addressing a need in your community. It could be volunteering as an organizer for 350, picking up trash in the river, taking care of the elderly, or becoming an advocate for social justice. Pick whatever you want, but my suggestion is you pick just one thing. (It should probably be the thing that breaks your heart the most because you’ll need to be passionate about it so that you’ll want to continue when things get hard.)
Then as soon as you pick your project, you’ll immediately find people who are interested and supportive of the same thing. Some of these will be homeowners like me with staggering amounts of debt, who wish we could commit more time to projects like yours, but are too busy working every day. Then start developing a relationship with these potential hosts. Have dinner with them, talk about your ideas, work together on shared projects to see if spending more time with them would be a good fit. After you have developed a solid relationship and proved your trustworthiness as well as work ethic, then ask, “Would you give me rent in your home if I commited 10-15 hours a week to this?” (We calculate the hours needed to work a week based on a $10/hr wage, and divide that by the average rent cost in our community.) Point out to your potential host how much work could be done without ever giving money to a distant charity and how the host could help guide the project and even get credit for sponsoring you.
I think that this is the most radical, practical, and useful relationship that any of us could engage in for many, many reasons. The first is that we currently live as consumers to meet all our basic needs. We buy our food, we pay for rent, and all have utility bills. With a skilled resident relationship, we immediately stop being consumers and instead have to advocate for our basic needs in ways that make us better citizens. These are relationships that require communication, boundaries, assertiveness, collaboration, and compassion to be successful. These are also exactly the skills we need to develop to be successful beyond our doorsteps in the fight for clean air, water, social justice, fracking, and so on. By working in relationship for our basic needs, instead of being consumers of needs, we fundamentally change how we walk on the planet.
This relationship is even more powerful than just the obvious benefits of having your basic needs met. If you do something that you are passionate about for 10-15 hours a week, then you become empowered to do whatever you want for the rest of your week. Maybe you have to work a full time job to pay off those loans (which you will be able to pay off quickly because nearly all the money you earn can be directed towards them). Or you can do something inspiring like starting your own small business or spending time to discover all your gifts and talents.
I want to point out how much of a game changer this could be. Right now, there are an estimated 1.5 million non-profits in the U.S. and each one of them needs the money of people who are dependent on the global economy to keep the doors open. Most of them pay for offices, salaries, and mailings, with the end goal of getting volunteers and citizens to work on various social causes. What if we flipped this model on its head and for every non-profit in our country, there was just one skilled resident each putting 10 hours of work into their community in exchange for rent? What if each of these residents was a grassroots organizer, who was taking on specific projects that had been identified directly by the residents of their community to make it better, and it didn’t cost any money, didn’t require any additional fundraiser dollars, and the whole time they could also work part time jobs to pay off their debt, while they gained the economic freedom and real world experience to do what they loved? And while we are at it, instead of spending ridiculous amounts of money to send out children to college, what if we invest that money in relocalization projects that our children could launch in our communities?
This would change everything. And it has already started. While Transition Lab is still tiny, our graduates have already taken on projects as diverse as they are. In addition to some of the projects I mentioned above, our graduates are now doing things like working to build tiny house communities, starting edible garden businesses, and planting permaculture gardens in the lawns of frat houses. We are doing this ourselves with a minimum of upfront cash. No government funding, no non-profit grants, no secret millionaire. Just us.
So here is practical and radical step #3 for everybody: Start by building relationship with everything around you.
The relationships that I’ve described above are ways to reimagine what we can do as a community. I’m discouraged when I hear people offering “solutions” that are about rejecting relationship and valuing isolationism. For example, both the hippies and neo-cons are building closed communities (communes or compounds) where they can wait out the apocalypse with like-minded folks. But surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals behind a wall in the middle of nowhere doesn’t sound like very much fun to me. Not only that, but it is a model that can’t easily be scaled up, and most closed communities gradually fail. On the other hand, through our work at Transition Lab, we are transforming our neighborhoods garden by garden and street by street. This is really similar to the Transition Streets project, but with one key difference: If there are folks who are economically encouraged to dedicate 10 hours a week to these projects, week after week, then we can get a lot more done.
Now, several years into our projects, I’m on a first name basis with nearly everybody in a two block radius. The reason is simple: We have a surplus of veggies and can use these as offerings to build relationship beyond my circle of friends. Taking a bag of carrots to the low income seniors, or eggs to the Tea-Party metal worker, are ways to build bridges and talk. They see that we share the same values like a strong work ethic, care for neighbors, and an ability to listen. Despite how we label ourselves politically, these are the values that are the most important to me, and I think are most important to all of us. If the apocalypse does come tomorrow, I could call on each one of these folks to help out with different things in my life because we know each other as human beings. Ultimately, being surrounded by diverse yet caring neighbors is what I want in my life. And after all, it is fundamentally easier to develop relationships now than to fight a civil war later.
However, I think what we are doing at Transition Lab goes much deeper than merely creating a better survival strategy. I think that the biggest problem with our world is that we do not live in relationship with most things in our lives. We are not really connected to where our food comes from, where our phones are made, or where our gas is drilled. This often makes the ecocide all around us distant enough that we are able to keep on going about our lives without much thought to the consequences of our actions. Conversely, when we start growing our own food, hosting skilled residents, and working with community, we make fundamentally different choices that consider the well-being of one another and not just our pocket books. These are the ways to fundamentally change how we live and approach our lives. I am also convinced that these are the most powerful radical actions that we can take towards healing our planet and ourselves. If you have both the courage, desire, and joy to want to change the world around you, the steps above are a great way to get started. The suggestions that I have made are not always easy, but they are effective, and I know they work.
So Now What? Here’s how I can help you, and how you can help me.
If you want some good resources on setting up the skilled resident relationships that I’ve described here, I have given two talks with Transition US specifically on the subject. You can listen to those for free here and here.
I am also looking for folks to help pioneer these models and develop them into even more elegant ways of living. One way to do this is to develop a website that connects “Skilled Residents” with hosts. Think of this as an Airbnb, but that would provide affordable housing for change makers. If you have web-development skills and want to help me with the project, get in touch. Transition Lab is even willing to give away free tuition for folks who will help me with this and a number of other projects. For more information on this visit www.transition-lab.com/dreamteam/
And that gets me to the final piece: Transition Lab is always looking for visionaries who want to help us evolve our projects and replicate these things across the globe. If you have the courage to pioneer a new economy, come join us. We’ll be expecting you.
Photo credits: Photos courtesy of Transition Lab. From top: the beautiful garden that Jake Hanson built at Cindy Harwood’s house; Evan Lavin with the first seasons harvest back in 2010; Andrea Lotz speaking at Transition Lab’s graduation in 2014; Kevin Studley and Russell Evans assembling flowers out of scrap metal while learning to weld – in the background is Wiley Freeman; and Russell Evans at a student/ host dinner held at his house with 5 students and 15 folks from the community were included.